United effort!

Collaborative learning is an essential yet underrated aspect in the Indian higher education system. Reena Jhaveri makes the case for it

United effort!

In a world where each student is striving to be a little better than the rest so that he can secure a better job at campus placements, it is difficult for classmates to work collaboratively on the project. There is no doubt that in many professional colleges, including, management and engineering colleges, students are asked to work in groups, but this is often due to the nature of the work or the volume of the work, rather than focussing on collaborative learning, according to a few teachers.

So, what exactly is collaborative learning? Collaborative learning is an educational approach to teaching and learning that involves groups of students working together to solve a problem, complete a task, or create a product. J M Gerlach defines it in his 1994 paper ‘Is this collaboration?’ as “Collaborative learning is based on the idea that learning is a naturally social act in which the participants talk among themselves. It is through the talk that learning occurs.”

“So, your teachers cannot negate the group work given out to the students in professional colleges, because even if the intention is different, the learning occurs,” says Siddharth Dhanojia, who teaches marketing to media students. For collaborative learning to benefit students, it is essential that students get together and talk about the task at hand, and work together to a common goal.

Between 2002 and 2004, the ‘Hole-in-the-wall’ experiment was conducted in India, with unsupervised playground computer kiosks set up in Indian towns popularly called ‘hole-in-the-wall’. The experiment showed that showed that children exposed to these kiosks learnt to use computers on their own and that they were able to clear school examinations in computer science, without any classroom teaching for it. The project showed that the social inclusion of ICTs enabled students to work together to develop knowledge and skills on their own. Experts say that essentially, “students need to be responsible for one another’s learning as well as their own and that reaching the goal implies that students have helped each other to understand and learn.”

There are several benefits to students when engaging in collaborative learning, and it can be administered across disciplines. These include:

Motivation: “When they are working together without anyone to guide them, students are highly motivated to demonstrate their knowledge to each other. In this sense, they share a lot of knowledge among themselves, and the use of each person’s ideas becomes a motivating factor,” says Ganesh Sombilkar, who teaches finance to management students. He often asks students to study reports of listed companies and come up with solutions through the new knowledge acquired.

Creative process: “With each assignment that is handed out as a collaborative learning task, the teacher should be available as a resource to the students,” opines action research professor Dr Shubhada Joglekar. During this process, the combined knowledge and thoughts of the students bring forth much better results than those worked upon individually, she adds. “It is a time when everyone is responsible, and yet no one is responsible. Thus, they are not afraid to being laughed at or made fun of. They talk and discuss freely, even when the faculty is present,” she says.

Sorting out the differences: There are instances when group projects do not work and create problems for the teacher. “Even then, one should try to encourage the students to address their differences and work out a middle way. In this way we encourage them to work in a professional setting. Students need to realise that if they walk away from a college group in a huff, they might get away with it, but the same will not be possible at the work place,” says Ajay Tikekar, who teaches account planning to marketing students.

Interdependence of students: When students are not given a choice but to work with others, they realise that they depend on others to get some of the work done. “Many students are individual workers, work at their own pace, and hate it when they have to work with others. Collaborative learning proves to be a great experience for such students, who then need to fit into the ‘group’ mould and cannot dictate all the terms. They gradually learn the importance of depending on others and trusting them with the work. After all, in life, each person cannot do everything on his or her own!” says Sombilkar.

Working constructively rather than destructively: According to Dr Joglekar, this is one of the most important benefits for the Indian scenario. “Ever since they are in school, students learn to hide their work and answers from each other. Collaborative learning, especially working towards a common goal will help resolve some of those instilled beliefs. When students realise that they all will benefit by achieving that goal, mindsets can change, and that can bring about a greater chance in future,” she says.

There are ways to introduce collaborative learning in class, and according to some teachers, it takes a little relinquishing of control to adopt it freely in class. Once done, the benefits are long-term!

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